Checking my reading records on LibraryThing I realise that this is my sixth reread of Cherryh’s Hellburner, and while I am a rereader this is some kind of record in itself. One or two, yes, three if it is an exceptional book, but SIX times?
Several years ago I committed a review of it on this blog, too, though it held more spelling errors than I want to admit to… and I really want to make a note on it, so here goes nothing –
Written as book 5 of the 7 that makes up the Company Wars suite it nevertheless is is placed as the second one when timeline is considered. As such it tells part of the story from the beginning of what since Alliance Rising was published is known as the Second Company War, with the writer (and any reader who has read these books in the orer they were published) already knowing quite a bit about what will happen in what in Hellburner is “the future”.
We have already grown to distrust, if not dislike, the Fleet. They were once Earth’s, and Earth Company’s, military arm in a bid for power in the wide Beyond, but as the war turned into a no-win game for the EC the EC stopped providing for their Fleet. The Fleet leadership disagrees with the stand-down order, turning rogue. To supply themselves they have been forced to turn to robbery and contraband, terrorising star stations, jump points, and ships. That is were they are as we meet them in books further down the timeline.
Hellburner, then, tells several stories: how a collectively run Merchanter style fleet became the EC’s tool, headed by Conrad Mazian; how the giant carrier ships got their “riders” – i.e. their fast stinger ships; how the Fleet managed to co-opt people who did not agree with what was happening on a higher level.
Two specific features makes the book extra compelling to me.
First, the story is told from the eyes of the every-man. No one of the people whose perspectives we gets to share is in a position of power, not even the one who others perceive as “higher up”. He is indeed higher up on the chain of command, but wields no read power: he is the archetype middle manager, if well-intended.
Second, the way corporate warfare and desktop politics is depicted. I find the politicking going on extremely realistic, from the psychological profiles of the ruthless power-grabbers to the way the politics choice trumps what would be good for a project or mission, ultimately ruining all prospects of success… and how the psychopathic power-hungry ones’ gets a free rein by people who will have only ruin to collect in the long run… but see no other choice short term.
(Third, and I know this is an addition to my “two specific features”, is for what it gives to the fandom. Not only do we get to meet people who will feature later on, getting to understand a bit more of how they came to be who they were when we last met them – we also get a cameo from a ship of Company War renown, the ECS-5, later known as ECS Norway.)
I can see why people who expect space opera and drama might not enjoy this book. Too much politicking going on. I can see why people who expect military sf might not enjoy this book. Again, too much politicking, too little fighting, not enough battle-tactics.
That doesn’t mean that nothing happens – there is a lot going on, lots of drama. Enough to make the story into a miniseries, interweaving Heavy Time tidbits as flashbacks for background (Heavy Time is where we first meet many of the protagonists of Hellburner, a very different book, both can be read stand-alone).
And I just plain love the book. I will reread it several times more, of that I am very certain.